As we are fully immersed in the holiday season, the feeling of gratitude is easy to conjure for many –being surrounded by love ones, embracing the giving spirit and helping those in need or giving back to the community. But for many, the holiday season brings about less open hearted feelings and can be a time of discomfort and despair bringing up painful memories or just being overwhelmed by the busyness of the season and the pressure of commercialism.

No matter what the holidays bring up for you, the act of cultivating gratitude can be a helpful, healing and transformative exercise. Transforming the loneliness or painful memories by drawing attention to simple things that you do have and that make life rich – living in a free country, food in the fridge a warm bed at night. If you’re already feeling a sense of wonder, joy and connection, you can simply expand on that and spend some time pulling people or situations to mind that expand that feeling inside. The love for the people in your life, gratitude for what life brings or the satisfaction of living a life you love.

Gratitude is a relatively simple exercise that is accessible to us at any time. Not only can it shift our mood, but also has considerable health benefits. Everything from feeling more optimistic towards the future, to better sleep, a bolstered immune system, decreased stress and the natural inclination to give back just to mention a few.

But being grateful isn’t something that always comes easily. I for one can fight it scratching and clawing at times in my life, particularly if I’m feeling deflated, exhausted or just focused on something that’s not going the way I want. At those times, if I can just settle into what I DO have, what IS going right, slowly but surely, things shift.

I remember seeing Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen Buddhist monk, speak at a retreat a few years ago, and he continually said that at every moment, no matter what our circumstances, we have something we can be grateful for. At some moments it can be the sheer abundance of life and the amount of love and support in our world. Those are lovely. At others it drops down to the basics of I’m breathing, I’m free, I get to sleep in a safe place at night, I can walk.

I had a friend who suffered a tragic biking accident a few years ago crushing her cervical spine leaving her a quadriplegic single mother of three. The list of tragic horrible things that that could bring up are long, but I remember talking to her right after and one of the first things she said was that while she was lying there, she wasn’t thinking about whether or not she could walk again, she was just so happy to be alive. Alive. We are all alive. That is something to be grateful for.

Here are a few simple tools to help foster the grateful spirit:

  • Try a gratitude journal making a point to document at least one but ideally 3-5 things you are grateful for each day. Try starting and ending your day with that.
  • If you’re feeling overwhelmed or particularly glum, take a moment pause and feel a breath. Go back to the basics of just being alive and being able to get around on your own walking if you can. If you’re healthy, really think how amazing that is.
  • Feel what you feel. We so often try to run from our feelings, or at least the ones we label as ‘negative’. Feelings aren’t right or wrong, they just ARE. They’re our guideposts to our inner world. When we stop and feel what we’re actually feeing, we often move through it faster and, ironically, have more access to the joyful feelings when they come around
  • Give back. There are many people less fortunate or who need extra help. Studies show that those who help others get a boost of happiness and joyful feelings. In addition it helps us remember what we DO have and all the things that we have to be grateful for.
  • Just spend some time noticing what you do have: a fridge with food, Clean water right out of the tap, Clean air to breath…just to name a few
  • Say thank you (and mean it)– when we receive and acknowledge gifts from others (even if it’s just someone opening a door for us), it helps us foster that gratitude inside.
  • Tell someone you care about them.

These simple things, done daily can drop us into that gratitude filled state and as a result, help us be happier, healthier and less stressed. And who doesn’t need that during the holidays…or any time really!

Wishing a peaceful, happy, healthy holiday season and an abundant gratitude filled new year.